Dozens of nurses from the city’s public hospitals system picketed the agency’s lower Manhattan headquarters on Wednesday demanding safe staffing standards on par with those recently won by their private sector colleagues, as they gear up to renegotiate their union contract.

Nurses contend the city’s public hospitals face even worse staff-to-patient ratios than the private sector.

At Lincoln Hospital’s emergency department in The Bronx, nurses care for more than a dozen patients at a time – far above the industry standard of two to three patients, said nurse Barbara Randolph.

“If they would pay all nurses across the board, public and private, the same, you wouldn’t have nurses leaving public hospitals all the time,” said Randolph, a 15-year veteran at Lincoln who oversees nursing quality. “So they gotta pay us all what we deserve. We all do the same job.”

The collective bargaining agreement covering more than 9,000 nurses who work for the city’s Health + Hospitals system — members of the New York State Nurses Association — expires March 2. 

“NYC Health + Hospitals is grateful for the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice our highly-skilled nurses make every day,” agency spokesperson Christopher Miller said in a statement. “We look forward to negotiating a new contract with NYSNA when the current one expires in March and welcome new opportunities to strengthen our partnership with NYSNA and the nurses who are so essential to our mission and our System’s success.”

Lower Pay 

Nurses in the nation’s largest public health system care for more than 1.4 million patients every year, including 475,000 uninsured patients, according to NYSNA. Health + Hospitals accounts for nearly one-fifth of the city’s hospital beds, and almost half of all Level 1 emergency trauma care — the most comprehensive level — and inpatient mental health services. 

Nurses in the public hospital system also earn roughly $14,000 less a year than their counterparts in the private sector – a gap that is expected to widen to $19,500 with the new agreements reached in the private sector last week, said Lincoln Hospital nurse Sonia Lawrence.

Nurses at Montefiore and Mount Sinai hospitals ended their three-day strike last week having secured 19% wage increases over the span of their three-year contract, along with enhanced staffing standards – including fines for failing to comply with those ratios. Under the agreement, the two hospitals will pay fines directly to nurses left to cover understaffed units. Montefiore also agreed to add more than 170 new nursing positions to its emergency department.

“Working for a city hospital used to mean taking a pay cut for the long-term benefits of having a good pension and health benefits. But now, they’re not looking so good,” Lawrence told reporters and supporters gathered at H+H’s Water Street headquarters Wednesday afternoon. “Our pension was dramatically reduced, and who knows if we will have decent retirement health care?”

Even as the state has made broad efforts to remedy nurse staffing shortages, nurses say it is chronic understaffing that has plunged H+H nursing staff morale to an all-time low.

“We give excellent patient care,” said Coney Island Hospital post-anesthesia care nurse Angela Tenteromano. “We’re just exhausted.” 

Last year, two dozen nurses at the city’s public and private hospitals testified before the city Council about staffing shortages. That hearing, previously scheduled, took place the day after Mayor Eric Adams announced measures to make it easier for emergency responders to bring people with serious mental illness to the hospital involuntarily. 

“The most immediate problem is chronic understaffing. Hospitals try to save a few dollars on payroll by ignoring our contractual staffing ratios,” NYSNA president Nancy Hagans testified at the Nov. 30 hearing. “When there aren’t enough nurses and their patient assignments are too heavy, the patients suffer and the nurses get worn down and start looking for new jobs.”

It was a stalemate over safe staffing standards that led more than 7,000 nurses at Mount Sinai and Montefiore nurses to walk off the job for three days last week, sending hospital administrators scrambling to keep facilities running and vulnerable patients safe.

State law prohibits New York public sector workers, including nurses, from striking.

The nurses’ calls for raises and increased staffing comes as the Adams administration seeks to slash funding for schools, libraries and other city services. Also awaiting bargaining with the Adams administration are District Council 37 and the United Federation of Teachers, who together represent 60% of the city’s workforce and whose contract expired last year; and the union representing H+H’s interns and residents, CIR-SEIU, who are working under a contract that expired in 2021.

The staffing shortages are also happening after nurses statewide saw a tripling in workplace injuries and illness between 2019 and 2020, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics  — a figure mostly driven by exposure to COVID-19 and long, punishing shifts during COVID case surges.

More than 50 NYSNA members have died of the virus, most of them nurses from the public hospitals system, according to the union.

At the Water Street rally on Wednesday, nurses observed a moment of silence for their felled colleagues before picketing to the building’s front door. 

They led chants of “We saved New York!” and “Let us inside!”